Mountain Transportation – The Vision

Policy InsightsWe love our Wasatch Front mountains. Their value is incalculable. The challenge is to keep from loving them to death. Almost instant access to gorgeous alpine vistas and recreation by a couple million people makes the Wasatch Front unique in America — but also makes our mountains susceptible to overuse and degradation. How do we keep the mountains pristine and preserve them for future generations while continuing to enjoy them? 

Part of the answer is clean and innovative mountain transportation. A large share of mountain impact comes from automobiles and associated parking lots, emissions and development.

A great Mountain Transportation system would greatly reduce human impact in the canyons, make Utah exclusive in the country, bolster the ski and tourism industry, provide development opportunities in the valley, and better serve both local residents and out-of-state skiers.

Most Cottonwood Canyons skiers, at one time or another, have gotten stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on snowy, narrow, slick canyon roads, driving either to or from the ski resorts. It’s white-knuckle, scary driving, and parking is often hard to find.

Imagine hopping on public transit anywhere across the Wasatch Front, socializing with friends, or working on a WiFi-connected laptop, and be skiing at your favorite resort (or hiking or fishing in the summer) within an hour, no matter the weather conditions.

Imagine you’re an avid skier from Los Angeles. Imagine that you could fly to Salt Lake City in little more than an hour, hop on a train at the airport, with your luggage and ski equipment, and ride public transit to ski lifts — without having to rent a car, negotiate snowy roads, or worry about safety.

Mountain Transportation would be a game-changer for Utah. Our ski resorts would be distinctive in the nation, on par with exclusive European resorts that are accessible by train. It would give Utah’s ski industry an enormous competitive advantage, especially against Denver, where it takes half a day to get from the airport to the ski resorts. This opportunity is significant enough that the Salt Lake Chamber’s Mobility Coalition, of which I am a member, has made Mountain Transportation a priority issue.

But this is about much more than just transportation, skiing and economic development. It’s also about saving our canyons, preventing degradation and preserving our quality of life. Good Mountain Transportation would support a diversity of recreation uses, minimize noise, preserve viewshed, improve air quality and reduce wildlife habitat impacts. These canyons are important watershed, supplying drinking water to more than half a million people.

The Wasatch Front population will increase by more than 1 million people over the next 30 years. Planners say current growth in vehicle traffic in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons is simply unsustainable. Travel restrictions will need to be imposed or fees charged to enter the canyons. Weekend daily vehicle trips are expected to increase to 16,000 in Little Cottonwood Canyon alone by 2030.

Some of the benefits of an innovative Mountain Transportation system include:

  • Future development (hotels, restaurants, etc.) could be placed mostly in the valley cities, in some cases at the mouth of canyons, with easy transit access to the canyons. 
  • The number of people enjoying the resorts could be increased without increasing parking lots, hotels, or development in the canyons.
  • Safety would be dramatically improved. People are frightened of driving the narrow roads. In heavy snow, traffic can be bumper-to-bumper, stop-and-go. It’s white-knuckle driving. 
  • A great Mountain Transportation system would improve Utah’s position in the pursuit of future Winter Games.
  • The region would be positioned as a year-round world-class recreation/resort destination.
  • Patrons could better enjoy the canyons, and mountain recreation, while more easily taking advantage of downtown dining, entertainment and hotels.
  • Real estate and land values at the mouths of the canyons would improve.
  • Reliable, inexpensive, transportation would be available for resort workers, who wouldn’t need to live at the expensive resorts. 

Clearly, Mountain Transportation will be expensive. But sharing the costs among all the interested industries, businesses and entities make it possible. Consider the many possible participants: cities, counties, airport, developers, ski industry, Forest Service, environmental groups, commuters, Utah Transit Authority, UDOT, and recreation enthusiasts.

It is possible that Mountain Transportation would be approached as a public/private partnership, with private stakeholders taking a share of risk, providing at least part of the financing, and perhaps even operating the system.

Obviously, myriad questions remain to be answered. But that’s why all the stakeholders should engage in a discussion now, and begin environmental, engineering, and financing studies to see what’s feasible and what the scope should be. We need to start now, because in 10 years the canyons will be in trouble and/or major traffic restrictions will be imposed.

We love our mountains. Let’s find ways to continue to enjoy them without loving them to death.